Becoming immersed in Chinese culture while studying in Beijing can be positively life changing.
Just ask French author Vincent Hein, who wrote East of the Clouds, a published diary of his experience learning Mandarin in Beijing as a Sorbonne exchange student. He wound up spending over a decade there.
Former United States First Lady Michelle Obama praised such overseas academic schemes when she spoke at Peking University in 2014, saying: ‘The architecture of an ancient temple.. could inspire the design of new buildings in Dallas or Detroit.’
She also quoted a Chinese proverb: ‘better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.’
But those who choose to study in Beijing do both. They seek real-world exposure beyond their borders, a chance to take courses in a city with over 3,000 years of heritage – from the Great Wall of China to the Summer Palace – and to develop a deeper understanding of Chinese language and culture today.
There are plenty of opportunities for tours with Beijing’s top universities — be it for two weeks or two months. After a short stay, some end up pursuing longer term degree programmes in China’s buzzing capital.
Through inter-institutional exchanges and partnerships, schools like Technical University of Munich, Utrecht University, London School of Economics and University of Edinburgh are bringing more and more students to Beijing.
There are many routes to this exciting, historically important city, which can be tailored to areas of interest. Peking University, Tsinghua University and the Beijing Film Academy are just three examples of renowned institutions which offer unforgettable study tours in the modern metropolis.
There are 91 universities in Beijing such as…
• Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology
• Beijing Normal University
• Renmin University of China
• Beijing Institute of Technology
• China Foreign Affairs University
• Capital Medical University
• China University of Geosciences
• Central University of Finance and Economics
• Beijing University of Chinese Medicine
• China Conservatory of Music
• Central University for Nationalities
• Beihang University
• University of Science and Technology Beijing
Past Meets Future in Peking University’s ‘Citywide Classroom’
Futuristic Beijing comes to life in innovative designs by top global architects – from the National Centre for Performing Arts (‘The Giant Egg’) and the World Trade Center Tower China skyscraper, to the uniquely shaped CCTV (now CMG) headquarters.
But the city’s modern emergence, through education, can be traced back to 1898 when China’s first national university was founded.
Today, Peking University (PKU) is #1 in China and in the global top 30. Robin Li, co-founder of Baidu (‘China’s Google’) and former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are just two of its famous alumni.
Each summer, it offers four to eight-week Mandarin language courses to international students, which are accompanied by lectures on China’s culture, society and history.
Those enrolled in the school’s summer course on politics and urbanisation have marvelled at how the topic moves intuitively from the classroom into Beijing’s ‘extended campus,’ where students witness firsthand the capital’s urban evolution.
Beyond PKU’s centrepiece of Weiming Lake, the metropolis’ historically rich Dongcheng District gives visitors a peek inside Imperial palatial life at the Forbidden City and the Palace Museum. Other landmarks in the area include Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China and Mao’s Mausoleum.
Further afield, an all-time student favourite is The Great Wall of China — the longest manmade structure on earth (and ultimate selfie spot). Its most popular section, Badaling, is a fairly short train ride away from campus.
Street food tours of Beijing’s hutong (alley) stalls promise a literal taste of the city’s culture through local favourites — savoury dumplings, sesame shaobing, aromatic Peking duck, etc. There’s also a chance to learn about and sample ‘emperors’ eats’ at the Yuxiandu Royal Gastronomy Museum, which presents a banquet dinner.
A Tsinghua University Alumnus Writes a Book About His Study Tour
London-born writer J.R. Thornton was so moved by his time in Beijing that he wrote a novel, Beautiful Country, inspired by it.
At 14, he spent a year training with the Beijing junior tennis team while learning Chinese. ‘Even after I left China, those experiences really stayed with me,’ he told the press.
The book was published in China where it became a bestseller. It highlights a friendship between a young US tennis player and his Chinese sporting peer — an example of the social perks of studying in Beijing.
So compelling was the capital that it recently drew Thornton back again, this time as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. The school ranks #2 in both China and Asia and is in the top 30 globally.
Overseas students at Tsinghua, whether sporty or not, can enjoy a visit to Olympic Green; also in the Northern part of the city. Its chief landmark is an architectural and Olympic wonder: the Beijing National Stadium (‘Bird’s Nest’).
The National Aquatics Center (a luminous blue box known as ‘the Water Cube’) is now the country’s biggest water park. The National Sports Museum of China, in the Asian Games Village, takes a look at martial arts, polo and other physical activities through the ages.
Tsinghua University has its own museum on site with an impressive calligraphy collection. The school offers a one-month summer Mandarin language course which includes sightseeing trips. One of its two-week programmes teaches foreign students about global issues – from economics to innovation – viewed through a Chinese lens.
It’s ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ in China’s Capital at the Beijing Film Academy
International students at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) can learn to make movies in the spirit of alumnus director Zhang Yimou, whose Raise the Red Lantern won a BAFTA. Guest professors James Cameron or Ang Lee may even teach a directing class. After all, according to Hollywood insiders, China is on track to become the world’s top movie market.
The academy has exchange partnerships with Brussels’ LUCA School of Arts, La Fémis in Paris and other foreign institutions. It also presents short workshops on subjects such as cinematography and photography, often jointly with the likes of the Netherlands Film Academy and others.
All the inspiration needed to craft that Oscar-winning film can be found across town at the 798 Art Zone — where former factories in the Dashanzi District have been turned into hip art spaces.
Full of pop culture influences and busy cafés, this creative area is home to the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum and White Box Museum of Art, along with artistic graffiti and public sculptures.
Northeast of there, the China National Film Museum — the largest of its kind in the world — shines a light on development of Chinese films from 1905 onward. Among such enduring works is Farewell my Concubine, directed by BFA graduate Chen Kaige.
The ‘90s film was about two stars of Peking opera — a popular performance art which brings together vocals, dialogue, mime, martial arts, music and elaborate and colourful costumes.
BFA visiting students attend live operas – just one stop on their programme’s Chinese culture sightseeing trips. The Huguang Guild Hall hosts performances in an historic 19th century setting, while the Red Theatre showcases another Chinese tradition: Beijing Kung Fu.
Ask your university about exchange programmes in Beijing or visit the Beijing municipal website for details on schools, scholarships, visas and more